Yacht Club Memories: An open letter to American Jews

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Restricted clubs are something American Jews know all about. Restricted: no Jews admitted. As a teenager in the early ‘sixties, I once babysat for some Christian kids at a restricted yacht club. While my young charges dug sand castles, I sat and wondered what the folks sunbathing all around me would say if they knew that their precious beach was at that very moment being defiled by contact with my 100% non-WASP backside.

When I came to live in Israel, I found out what a restricted club feels like when you’re a member. To be perfectly candid, at first I enjoyed it. It was fun to belong, for a change. But over the years, as I got to know Palestinians, the fun gradually went out of it. It took me a long time to face up to the fact that I don’t really like being privileged because I’m Jewish, any more than I once liked being discriminated against for the same reason. Something has gone wrong here, evidently. What are we going to do about it?

Sometimes people ask me if I’m a Zionist; I simply don’t know what to answer any more. Once, the word meant “Jewish renaissance” and I could feel proud of it; not any more. And if you think mine is just a wacky, marginal opinion you can safely ignore – think again. I’m an ordinary, middle-class mother of two, and lots of Israelis just like me are struggling with the same dilemma. Like me, they don’t see it primarily through the lens of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Nor do they come to it as an academic exercise, a debate about the merits of “post-Zionism” as a philosophy. They come to the dilemma viscerally, empirically, and often reluctantly, as a response to what’s going on around us.

NEIGHBORLY AFFINITIES

There are more than nine million people living in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. I feel a neighborly, even cousinly, affinity with all of them, but only about half are in the Zionist club with me; the other half are excluded. A million of the excluded even hold Israeli citizenship, but that’s not the operative distinction here. They still can’t join my Z-club (even though they were born here, which I was not).

Certainly Zionism was conceived as a noble enterprise, and it has been midwife to an extraordinary Jewish national-cultural renaissance. On the other hand, Zionism is now over a hundred years old, and the State of Israel is 55. An awful lot can change in fifty or a hundred years; why not do a reality check? Maybe traditional Zionism is past due for a major overhaul.

Note that I said “reality check” and “overhaul,” not “hatchet job.” Equating Zionism with racism was always both pointless and counterproductive. When we want someone to work with us, labeling him a racist (or a terrorist) is not the best way to begin. If we are sincere about wanting to work together, far better to view him as our partner. Sooner or later, he will tend to live up (or down) to the way we see him in our heart.

Many of you still proudly call yourselves Zionists today, because it means you support Israel and the idea of Israel as the headquarters for the modern Jewish renaissance. This is admirable and constructive, as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. To be a strict-constructionist Zionist in 2003 means to live in the past, inside an ethno-patriotic bubble of limited horizons. Consider that, from the Palestinian perspective, Leon Uris’s “Exodus” was about as accurate a portrait of its time and place as was “Gone with the Wind” from an African-American perspective. Lately Alice Randall, in her parody “The Wind Done Gone,” has attempted to retell the Civil War saga from an African-American perspective; the Palestinian Alice Randall has yet to appear.

Meanwhile, we in Israel/Palestine need your brains, talent, energy, and partnership more than ever before. We need you to wean yourself away from that comfy old mono-ethnic Zionist worldview and help us move on into the next evolution. Yes, that can be frightening, because people assume that to ask searching questions about Zionism in 2003 necessarily negates the whole enterprise, in hindsight, from start to finish. On the contrary; it is the general refusal on the part of fair-minded, well-intentioned Jews everywhere to ask painful questions about the state of Zionism in 2003 that is well on the way to negating the whole enterprise.

The reality in Israel today is so much more complex, more interesting, and more challenging than the old Z-word can address. While some of you are still being taught that “the Arabs” are Amalek, the undead arch-enemy of the Jews, others of you are rallying to support our efforts here in Israel to design a shared future with our Palestinian cousins under the banner, “We refuse to be enemies.” I do not propose dismantling the Zionist enterprise; I propose that we find a way to dramatically broaden the customer base – and maybe redesign the logo and give the new Z-Group a new name. Zionism is like a small private company whose real motto is “Choose life!” I want to take it public. I want it run by civilians, not generals. I want to take it ecumenical. I want to bring my neighbors into the club. I want this yacht club to recreate itself as a cousins’ club (like the one my Aunt Flo was in, all her life). It has a nice ring to it, no? A cousins’ club.

BAD FOR ONE MEANS BAD FOR BOTH

When my Palestinian friends tell me that Zionism was a bad idea, what they mean is that Zionism was bad for THEM. And, as the saying goes, when it’s bad for one (partner), it’s bad for both.

Of course, you can say that Palestinians are not my partners; you can say that they’re my enemies. But you know what? I don’t buy it anymore. Fair-minded Israelis and Palestinians are tired of that shtick. We are consigning it to the garbage heap of old, deconstructed self-fulfilling prophecies that weren’t worth the parchment they were inscribed on, not to mention the innocent blood they were drenched in. The Israeli army, long the dominant force in Israel’s economy and in the social and cultural tapestry of the nation, has a tremendous vested interest in maintaining the perspective that the Palestinians are our enemy. Palestinian militant groups have the same vested interest, unless and until they have a chance to engage in a more constructive struggle on behalf of their people. In ordinary civil society, meanwhile, on both sides, everyone with a modicum of common sense today – everyone not functionally blinded by hatred, grief, fear, and revenge – knows perfectly well that Israelis and Palestinians are destined to be partners in this land, and that we might as well make the best of it. Accordingly, what’s bad for my partner is bad for both of us. We need a better paradigm.

It makes no sense to cling blindly to the old familiar Z-view while the situation on the ground here in the homeland has moved on decisively into a new era. There is no going back; hiding our heads in the sand accomplishes nothing. A new day has dawned here, people – and we need you to get up to speed on the new mindset. If possible, we need to you to do it yesterday.

The ranks of those committed to reconciliation are growing steadily – despite (or maybe because of) all the bloodshed. Thoughtful young Israeli Jews are critically appraising the vast gap between the humane values they were raised on and the way this society is being run – most particularly in terms of what is happening to the Palestinians, but also in terms of what is happening to all the socially or economically or politically disenfranchised groups in this land.

Oh, yes. Israeli young people are seriously chafing at their traditional Z-role. Some are even going to jail, rather than put on the uniform and be sent to the West Bank or Gaza to help perpetuate the brutal disenfranchisement of three million fellow human beings. There is severe economic hardship in Israel right now, but it’s nothing compared to what’s happening in the Palestinian territories: old people, men, women, and children, who (right this minute, a few short miles from where I’m sitting) are under armed siege, gradually succumbing to mass unemployment, hunger, deteriorating health, and despair. Meanwhile, many of the children of my closest friends are doing what they see as their duty and donning the uniform, some of them risking their lives in elite units – kids I’ve known and loved since they were babies. To help us end this crazy conflict in time to save the children, we need your informed support for the pursuit of reconciliation.

MEET THE REAL ISRAEL OF 2003

Israelis today number about 6.5 million. Around a third are of Eastern Mediterranean, Asian, or African descent. Nearly a million are Russian immigrants. About a third are of Australian, European, Latin or North American extraction.

Another million Israeli citizens, living in Israel proper, not the territories, are actually Palestinian Arabs (forgive me if I’m restating the obvious, but I’m always amazed at how few people abroad realize this). These Palestinian-Israelis don’t call themselves “Israeli Arabs” anymore; their collective identity is evolving, in flux. The younger generation is thoroughly fed up with second-class citizenship. On principle, they want the right to join the restricted club, without having to pay for the privilege by relinquishing their pride or mortgaging their national-ethnic self-respect. They want equal opportunity and Kwanzaa too, so to speak. And why not?! As Jews, and as Americans, you can relate to that.

Now, factor in another few hundred thousand guest (foreign) workers from Eastern Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia. Are you starting to get the picture of today’s Israel? A multi-ethnic, multi- racial, multi-religious society with all the challenges of any other modern social mosaic. How can old-fashioned Zionism address all of this? It can’t. The neighborhood has diversified beyond recognition. Believe me, I’m not attempting to kill off the old Z-style. Reality has already done that.

LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

In spite of how drastically Israel has changed and evolved, American Jews still emigrate to Israel in pursuit of the same dream as always: to live free in our own land, with others like us; to know that heady intoxication of being part of the majority, instead of a (sometimes despised, if relatively privileged) minority, and a tiny minority at that, in the United States.

Well, guess what? Americans of Palestinian origin feel the same way. How’s that for a peculiar thought? If you roll it around in your mind for a while, it loses some of the strangeness.

After Oslo, lots of Palestinian-American yuppies came (or came back) to the West Bank or Gaza, and settled here with their familiesé to live free in their own land, with others like them; to know that heady intoxication of being part of the majority, instead of a (sometimes despised, if relatively privileged) minority, and a tiny minority at that, in the United States. The catch is that they can enter and exit Palestine only through Israel, with an Israeli tourist visa, renewable – with luck – every three months. To work, they need an Israeli work permit. Lately (summer 2003), Israel is refusing to renew visas or grant work permits for these Palestinian-American pioneers. Why? What’s the logic? Go know.

As one Palestinian-American friend recently phrased it: “Here’s the right-of-return thing in action, folks.” If his visa is not renewed, he’ll become an “illegal” in his own house in Ramallah, although his wife and kids were born and raised right there. In fact, his family reunification application has been pending with the Israeli authorities for (ouch) seven years now. Oy vey.

Picture a suit who speaks better English than Arabic and manages a major, publicly-traded Palestinian company. In the States, he was always being taken for a Jew, which tickled his robust sense of humor. I bet you a case of Sabra liqueur that this portrait is nothing like the image that comes to mind when you hear the dreaded phrase “right of return.” But that’s the crux of the issue. I’ve got Israel’s Law of Return (for Jews) on my side, and my Palestinian cousin hasé nothing.

ENOUGH ALREADY!

Hear me, please: We ordinary people of Israel and Palestine are at least as sick and tired of waging this stupid war as you probably are of reading about it. We don’t want to live this way anymore, and we most particularly do not want our children to have to live this way. “War is bad for children and other living things” é remember that one?

Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, is reputed to have said: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.” Good point, no?

When Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist seeker of peace, lectured in Israel a few years back, he said this: What Israelis and Palestinians need to do is to learn how to make peace as Israelis and Palestinians. And when they figure it out, they can tell the rest of the world how they did it. (A creative reinterpretation of: “And from Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”)

If we are forever to be cradling the Tablets of the Law in one hand and pointing a gun at our Palestinian cousins with the other, what is the point of this whole exercise? Enough already! Let’s find a way to liberate ourselves from our hundred-year-old version of our two- thousand-year-old mythic dream long enough to make some space for the next dream coming down the pipeline – one that’s even more remarkable because it will revolve, not around having this place all to ourselves, but around sharing it. Sharing the goodies. Sharing the wealth. Sharing the burdens and the responsibilities. Sharing in redeeming what is holy in the Holy Land. Sharing that wonderful feeling of belonging.

So long, yacht club. Hello, cousins’ club.

Deb Reich is a creative thinker living in Israel/Palestine.

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